Communication Barriers

Communication is only successful when both the sender accurately and clearly conveys the message and the receiver accurately and clearly understands the message. While this may seem simple, there are many reasons why this doesn’t always happen. The thwarting of successful communication is caused by what we call communication barriers.

Communication barriers come in many different forms. One form is physical communication barriers. For instance, it can be difficult to communicate with someone if you are in a loud and crowded room. Another example may be receiving a letter from someone, but not being able to read their sloppy handwriting. The second type of communication barrier is the language barrier.

For example, when vacationing in a different country it is difficult to communicate with the locals if you do not speak the native language. While these barriers are important to note, often we have little to no control over these circumstances.

In this lesson, we will instead focus on barriers that we can control or avoid. These barriers include things such as how we deliver a message, our attitudes, and our behaviors. To overcome communication barriers, we must first recognize what they are. Let’s begin by learning about some of the most common barriers.

Common Barriers

Criticizing: Criticizing another individual involves negative evaluation, disapproval, and judgment. Often, people feel that criticism is necessary for improvement, and without criticism, people will not learn. While the intentions of helping another individual improve are admirable, there are better ways of achieving this goal. Criticism rarely leads to improvement. More often, our criticisms are met with defensiveness and resentment. Later on, in this course, we will learn better ways of expressing opinions and helping others.

Labeling: Labels are words we use to describe others such as “loudmouth”, “redneck”, or “loser”. Labels can be used as shortcuts to describe a person. They save time and are easy to use. However, they can be dangerous: Humans are complex and multifaceted, and by giving labels, we restrict our views, make assumptions, and lose sight of who a person is.

Ordering: An order is an authoritative instruction or command. Orders are barriers because people often do not respond positively when faced with an order. Orders imply power over another and suggest that the person would not do the right thing or succeed on their own. This can be insulting and lead either to resistance and hostility or to compliance and submissiveness. In either case, orders can damage a person’s self-esteem.

Threatening: Threats often accompany orders, and are statements or actions that imply the intention of punishment for either doing or not doing something. Threats are used to manipulate others into doing what we want them to. Threats can be ill-intended, such as those that come from bullies to get what they want, or they can be an attempt by parents to set boundaries and keep order. However, threats can be damaging, and like orders – threats can lead either to resistance and hostility or to compliance and submissiveness. Instead of using threats, boundaries can be established with others through other means such as reasoning and cooperation.

Moralizing: Moralizing is commenting on what others should do based on morals, laws, or religion. For example, one might tell someone to return the wallet they found because “it is the right thing to do.” Moralizing can keep people from being upfront and honest for fear of judgment, and can foster anxiety and lower self-esteem in others.

Diverting: Diverting is a tactic that people use to change the topic and to gain control of the conversation. Often, diversion begins with the phrases “speaking of which” or “that reminds me”. Diverting can happen when one is uncomfortable, uninterested, or lack the skills to listen attentively. By diverting the conversation, you are signaling to the other person that you are no longer interested in what they have to say and you may be taking the conversation away from what is important.

Logic: You might be thinking, “What could be wrong with using logic?”. While logic has much importance, it is not always the best way to communicate with someone; especially when emotions are involved. For instance, if someone was sharing with you they're distraught over their car stereo, it would be harsh to answer with the logical statement, “If you leave your car unlocked, you can expect someone to get it and steal things”. While this may be true, it rarely helps to point this out and can further upset the person.

Breaking Down the Barriers

We are all guilty of committing some of these conversational barriers. They are easy to engage in and do not always lead to consequences. However, with continual use, these barriers can cause problems in our relationships with others and can lead to frustration, hostility, resentment, submissiveness, or lowered self-esteem. Having awareness of these barriers is the first step to becoming a better communicator. At first, you may still find yourself using a barrier out of habit. Try not to be too hard on yourself about this. Learned behaviors are hard to break!